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Air Force veteran dies waiting for hospital bed; family blames COVID-19

Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 3:35 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - An Air Force veteran from Tennessee doesn’t have COVID-19 listed on his death certificate, but his family says that’s exactly what killed him. The 80-year-old died waiting for a hospital bed and heart valve surgery.

Jack Harmon’s death certificate shows that cardiogenic shock and a nonfunctioning mechanical heart valve directly caused his death on Sept. 13. However, his family argues COVID-19 is what really killed the 80-year-old from Blount County, Tennessee, WVLT reports.

“He knew, with his age and his heart condition, it could be deadly to him. Ironically enough, I feel like it was but not in the way we thought it would be,” said Jack Harmon’s daughter-in-law, Ashley Harmon.

The Harmon family hopes that acknowledgment of what happened to the 80-year-old serves as a warning to East Tennesseans.

Their story starts with a home video, recorded by Ashley Harmon. The video shows her daughter Stella climbing into a golf cart with a destination in mind. All toddlers are on the go, but Stella knows where she is going.

“Stella, where are we going?” her mother asks. “Where do you wanna go?”

The young child answers, “Pappy.” She wants to ride the golf cart down the street to see her grandfather, her Pappy Jack. His home is a quick ride down the road from hers, and the two were accustomed to spending a lot of time together.

Jack Harmon Family
Jack Harmon Family(WVLT)

“He didn’t have to work or coach baseball. ... he had nothing else to do but love her,” Ashley Harmon said.

But when life is so good and bad things happen, it’s in our nature to wonder, “What if?”

“What if a few more people had gotten vaccinated?” Ashley Harmon wondered. “What if there was just one more room?”

“What if the doctors had found this months ago?” her husband, Donnie Harmon, wondered.

Those are the sort of questions Stella’s parents found themselves asking over and over. Because, if things had happened differently, they wouldn’t have buried Donnie Harmon’s dad on Sept. 18.

Jack Harmon’s headstone is towards the back of a Blount County cemetery. Stella visits with her parents but doesn’t understand that her Pappy Jack is gone.

Donnie and Ashley Harmon met with WVLT news anchor Amanda Hara to explain what led to his death.

“He got vaccinated, but you still think COVID is what killed him?” Hara asked.

“When I called the funeral home they had to ask if his death was due to COVID and I said ‘No,’ and then I was like, ‘Well yeah, but not in the way that you mean.’ He died waiting for a bed that wasn’t available,” Ashley Harmon said.

Ashley Harmon said her father-in-law died at Blount Memorial Hospital after waiting almost a week for a bed to open at University of Tennessee Medical Center. He needed something so basic: surgery to repair a mechanical heart valve.

“They realized his mechanical valve that he’d had for about 20 years had quit working, so it was staying open and his blood wasn’t flowing through his heart,” Ashley Harmon said.

Jack Harmon’s death certificate shows a nonfunctioning mechanical aortic valve and cardiogenic shock directly caused his death. His daughter-in-law said surgery to repair it was the only thing that could have saved him.

“The nurse in the CCU told me they had called as far north as Chicago and as far south as Atlanta, and they couldn’t find an empty CCU bed, that everything was full due to COVID. I broke down and cried and I asked the nurse, ‘Well what am I supposed to do’?” Ashley Harmon explained.

Ashley Harmon said she called everyone she knew: Veterans Affairs because Jack Harmon was in the military and hospital board members. Desperate for help, the family even contacted Congressman Tim Burchett’s office.

Jack Harmon Family
Jack Harmon Family(WVLT)

But when Burchett’s office called the family to see how it might be able to help, the family didn’t answer. They were busy watching doctors try to revive Jack Harmon. They had missed the call from Burchett’s office, and Jack Harmon died 20 minutes later.

“I just needed one bed. One person not being sick in the hospital could have made all the difference for us,” Ashley Harmon said.

She described enduring highs and lows and experiencing frustration and anger throughout the ordeal.

“You don’t know who to be angry at because those poor nurses, they called everyone they could. When I went back to the hospital on Monday and he had passed ... the nurses sat on the floor with me and cried with me. It’s not fair to us, and it’s not fair to the nurses and the doctors who are in that situation, either. It’s just a no-win situation,” Ashley Harmon said.

Jack Harmon’s medical records show how dire the hospital crisis was in mid-September. According to his death summary, “Attempts were made to transfer to multiple facilities with CTS including UT, Parkwest, Tennova, Ft. Sanders, Erlanger and Vanderbilt. No one was able to accept patient due to COVID pandemic and no beds.”

How often does someone die waiting for a bed that’s occupied by a COVID-19 patient? Blount Memorial Hospital isn’t tracking that data.

“This is not something we’re actively tracking,” said public relations manager Josh West. When asked if the hospital was aware of any circumstances similar to Jack Harmon’s, West said, “I can’t speak to that.”

University of Tennessee Medical Center isn’t keeping track either. Stacey Whitt, spokesperson for UTMC, said, “We don’t have that data.”

The state of Tennessee also does not keep track. “We are not tracking that information,” said spokesperson Sarah Tanksley.

Dr. Malcolm Foster, an East Tennessee cardiologist, said he and his partners have had patients die while waiting on a transfer. In fact, in the last year, he said between 50 and 100 of their patients died while waiting for a bed to open at one of the major health systems in East Tennessee.

Foster said the death rate was proving worse during the Delta wave of the pandemic, a trend he called concerning.

Yale conducted a study before the second Delta wave of the pandemic. It looked at the association between available hospital ICU beds and patient death rate during the initial weeks of the pandemic. It found that hospitals in the northeastern part of the United States had more deaths from a COVID-19 induced lack of ICU beds.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Alexander Janke, said that Tennessee was relatively spared in the early days of the pandemic.

However, the scarcity of recent data focusing on the second wave of the pandemic makes it difficult to understand whether what happened to Jack Harmon happens often or is a rare occurrence. Either way, his family said it should never have happened at all.

When asked why the couple decided to share Jack Harmon’s story, his daughter-in-law said, “Because people think everything is fake or made up or exaggerated. I want people to know that this is real and that it could be their family member. Next time, it may not be an 80-year-old man who’s had a long life. It could be a 16-year-old kid who has a wreck on the way home and there’s no hospital bed for him, or there’s no ventilator for him, or there’s no surgeon for him.”

“I don’t think I have the right to tell somebody they need to get the shot or they have to have it. I don’t think anybody else should be able to say, ‘You have to have it.’ It’s a choice. But like I explained to my wife the other day, if you don’t want to get the shot and you get sick, stay home,” Donnie Harmon said.

Their daughter Stella still rides the golf cart down the street to check on Pappy Jack’s house. And still, she doesn’t understand why he’s not there.

“I’m more heartbroken for her. I’ll always remember him, but I feel like she was robbed of that opportunity,” Ashley Harmon said.

The Harmons will forever be haunted by the “What ifs?” Except, Ashley Harmon said, maybe one: “What if the person who sees this story makes a change? What if a child doesn’t lose their parent because ... we shared Jack’s story?”

This “What if?” gives them hope that Jack Harmon’s death might just save a life.

Jack Harmon is survived by three children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He was a member of Six Mile Baptist Church, a veteran of the United States Air Force and retired from the Alcoa Aluminum Company.

COVID-19 related hospitalizations across Tennessee started dropping on Sept. 10. The number continued on a downward trend for more than 30 straight days. However, University of Tennessee Medical Center warned the demand for ICU beds is still high.

In an email dated Monday, UTMC’s Stacey Whitt said, “We are encouraged COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped from its peak in September. However, the numbers have stalled the past two weeks. COVID-19 hospitalizations and demand for ICU beds still remain significantly high.”

Copyright 2021 WVLT via Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.